Updated on March 22nd, 2023
“Learning to dance in Cuba was a life-enhancing experience for me. It is a true example of how we learn more from our failures than our successes. Join me for a tongue in cheek analysis of how taking Havana salsa lessons was the start of a journey through a month which changed my attitude to life.”
Havana, Trinidad & Viñales, Cuba.
Tackling a new skill can be daunting & we’re not all blessed with being brilliant at everything. But failure is a powerful way of learning. For me, taking salsa lessons in Cuba was so much more than just learning to dance. So, here is my tongue in cheek analysis of my journey through a new chapter of my life, while not becoming a Dancing Queen!
If dancing isn’t your thing, then also check out my post on Adult Learning Vacations, for all the inspiration you need.
Havana Salsa Lessons. Learning about dance & embracing life in Cuba
“No Salsa, No boyfriend”
I was in Havana for a month embarking on my new life of adventure. I had tragically lost my husband, Terry almost 2 years before & life had changed forever. After a year of joining friends & family on amazing escapes across the globe, I had decided it was time to take control. To strike out as a woman alone again. I created my Life List & being here was ticking off 2 of my goals, learning Spanish & visiting Cuba. I had enrolled in a language school in Havana & it was my first day in the country.
On a walk to explore the old town, Havana Vieja, I was joined by a local woman. One of her first questions was “Do you dance salsa?” I, of course, replied negatively. “In Cuba, no salsa, no boyfriend”.
“At this time, I was not in the market for a boyfriend, for obvious reasons. However, it did give me a glimpse into how important salsa was to this fascinating country.”
By the time I had walked my sandals off around the old town & was on my way back, I had received at least 3 offers to give me Havana salsa lessons. It appears that most Cuban men are teachers & willing to take on new students. I made a decision that during this month I would also tackle another element on my list – Learn to Dance. But dancing prowess does not come without a few bumps in the road.
Everybody has to start somewhere
By day 2, before I had even taken any Spanish lessons, I had made a friend in Bella. Our gorgeous chef, Carida had offered to take us to a salsa club. She didn’t speak any English & we couldn’t understand a word she said, but somehow we arranged a night out. As soon as we arrived, she approached a couple of young boys & basically insisted that they dance with us. Bella & I looked at each other with sheer panic! As true Brits, we needed something to help us with our courage. We were shocked to find that she expected us to embark on this experience without having first had at least 1, 2 or 5 drinks!
But, for the remainder of the song, 4 monumentally uncomfortable people danced salsa (or the guys did anyway). Thankfully the music ended & we were allowed to stop the excruciating experience. Bella & I headed straight to the bar & I think the guys ran for the hills in case they were forced to dance with us again!
Interested in learning a language overseas? Read my guide on Places to Learn Spanish in the Caribbean
“Yes” isn’t always the right answer
Carida then found a guy she knew well who became our teacher for the remainder of the night. He was lovely. Bella was gorgeous & in her early 20’s. For every dance I had, she had at least 2. However, I was happy with that. He had the ability to make learning fun.
Then, as I sat next to Carida, watching the amazing dancers, she kept turning to me & asking me something.
I didn’t understand but didn’t want to disappoint her, so I said “yes”. She shouted at a nearby Cuban guy who came to ask me to dance. I took up the challenge.”
It was uncomfortable & we were both relieved when it came to an end. Then she said something else to me & the process repeated, with a different guy. I think the rum had numbed my senses as it took 3 times before I worked out what the question must have been. Then the answer was “No, muchas gracias!”. I needed a few proper lessons before I said “Yes” again.
Throw out your ego
The next day, Bella & I signed up for official lessons. After 3 hours of an intense 1:1 Spanish class, it was the perfect antidote. A different & refreshing way to exercise my brain. Our teacher was Daniel & we started with a warmup. He would give us exercises & then stand & watch us as we executed them. Many of them involved thrusting our hips at him as we giggled to each other in an awkward way. He observed us with a curious, unimpressed expression on his face.
Let’s get one thing straight before I go any further. Cuban people are born dancing salsa. Their hips do very different things & move in very different ways to us mere mortals.
It’s beautiful to watch & brilliant to imagine that yours are doing the same. They’re not. It’s awkward & you look like you’re made of wood. Get over it & accept!”
Over the course of the next few days, we returned to our hour-long classes. Each time Bella returned to Daniel as a partner while I seemed to have a different man each day. It became a joke that I had danced with every man in Havana. I am convinced that one day I had the cleaner, who I think was also learning (so maybe not all Cubans are built to dance!). I felt dejected but remained determined as I was enjoying it so much.
Then one day, Adrian arrived.
Want to learn more about Cuba? See my First-Timers Guide to Cuba for everything you need to know
Size doesn’t matter
Adrian & I were a perfectly matched, mismatched couple. He was a passionate, Latino man with snake hips. I was an awkward, reserved English woman made of wood. He was also not much over 5 foot tall & I am almost 6. However, he possessed 3 of the key things I needed: tolerance, a great sense of humour & an empty diary for the remainder of my time in Havana. After so many empty promises I had finally met the Cuban man who would teach me salsa!
It was fun. He happily laughed at me & with me, except when he stared at me in disbelief. This was particularly true when I accidently stepped on my own feet & broke my shoe!”
Anyway, I was getting better by the day but most importantly enjoying myself. At the end of each lesson, we would do the ‘Casino’ where you dance & constantly change partners. Bella & I had a ball & came back buzzing every afternoon. We even increased our lessons to 2 hours every day.
Embrace how uncomfortable you feel
For me, taking dance classes in Cuba was so much more than just learning salsa. Remember what I said before about losing Terry? We were together for 18 years, married for 13. He was my best friend & the only man I had been physically close to in 20 years.
And salsa is close.
I like my personal space & am very protective of it. I love a hug but to be in my space for a prolonged period is rare. Learning salsa in Cuba meant opening up to the uncomfortable feeling of not just having someone right in my personal space, but that it was a man. It was a monumental shift in my development & it wasn’t lost on me. Salsa felt very intimate to me & initially hugely uncomfortable. But to Adrian & Daniel & all the other guys in Havana that I danced with, it was natural.
If you watch great dancers, you believe they are in love with their partners. They have hot sexual chemistry that is compelling to watch. And then they move on & dance with someone else.
For them it’s a love that lasts for the duration of the song. Then they fall in love with the next person on their dance card.”
I found that actually quite refreshing. It was a great way to reintroduce physical contact into my life. Fleetingly & in context. And then we both moved on to the next student/teacher.
Love Cuba? See 7 Days of Self-Discovery on a Yoga Retreat in Cuba
So, when the time came to leave Havana, I was ready. After 2 weeks learning Spanish & taking Havana Salsa lessons, it was time to strike out on my own & dip my toe back into the water of solo travel. My first stop was Trinidad.
During a walk in the town, I got chatting to a local guy. He spoke to me in English, I answered completely in Spanish. My language progress made me thrilled! And would you believe he was a salsa teacher?! He told me that I could take lessons & keen to advance my progress I put my name down for one. I told him how many lessons I had already taken & that I was not a beginner so he could make sure things were tailored to my needs.
When I arrived, my fellow students turned out to be a couple who had never danced salsa before. I joined in, feeling a little disappointed that I was going back to basics. Then my actual teacher arrived & took me off separately. I was really pleased until it became very evident that he was not Adrian.
He didn’t have much of a sense of humour & was clearly expecting much more of my skills. I came away feeling a bit deflated & realised that dancing with just one partner isn’t necessarily the best way to learn.”
Later that evening I went to the main square where they were dancing. The guy who had arranged my lesson asked me to join him. I did (after a couple of beers for Dutch courage). It wasn’t good. He ended up looking at me confused & said: “What’s happened?” I pointed at my broken sandals (remember them?) hoping to shift the blame. Then I left.
My next stop was Viñales. I had successfully avoided any more dance classes in Cuba for the last week. I was in a busy bar & sat on my own stool in the corner. Then a guy who had a table to himself asked if I wanted to share it with him. I knew it would create space for other diners & happily accepted. He was Australian & cycling around Cuba, on his bike during the day & enjoying showing off his salsa skills at night. I realised that he might be worried that I was alone to sharpen my (non-existent) cougar claws. Most sentences started with “My girlfriend…”. It was fine, he was safe!
I told him about my experiences with dancing so far & he said he would take me to the salsa club opposite. He was good to his word. We went. He was also an expert at salsa & I appreciated him taking the lead. After half an hour he clearly wanted to show off by finding a more competent partner. “Now I’m going to leave you to the Cuban men!” were his parting words. I thanked him.
I danced with some willing partners/teachers until one of them started licking my ear & I decided it was time to leave. But I was back on the horse…so to speak!”
Keen to see more? Favourite Hikes – Sunrise in Viñales, Cuba
Dance to the beat of your own drum
I had returned to Havana for my last night in Cuba before I reluctantly headed home. One of the girls in my casa invited me out for a few drinks with her Cuban boyfriend. After a few bars, we headed into Havana Vieja & a salsa club. I discovered that he had recruited one of his friends to keep me occupied for the evening.
It’s common in Cuba to partner up with someone who can dance with you in a club. Often tourists will pay their teacher to accompany them. It’s kind of escorting but even more acceptable in my opinion. They know you & are committed to dancing with you for the evening. You know you are in safe hands & get loads of practice. Everyone’s a winner!
My man wasn’t being paid but he was sweet, so I was happy. I was clear about the fact that I wasn’t very good. I felt it was important to manage his expectations. He was also very loyal & constantly asking if I wanted to dance. I did & we did. During one session, where I apologised one too many times, he called a halt to it all. He looked me in the eye & told me to stop worrying about the steps. Leave it to him & just enjoy it. I felt a huge sense of relief all of a sudden.
This, & the copious amount of rum I’d had all conspired to relax me. I went with it. My hips seemed strangely to have a life of their own & I had a ball. It proved a point. Maybe I was just trying too hard?”
Over the course of my attempts to learn, I had lost the huge sense of enjoyment that had fuelled my efforts in the early days. Who cares what anyone else thinks? I danced salsa my way & surely doing anything with a huge smile on your face is better than scowling your way through? And as a teacher, you don’t always want people to get it right. The fun is in getting it wrong & learning, even if getting it wrong is not about the steps, but more about the attitude.
We are not all skilled at everything & we need to embrace that. Learning anything is an adventure which will have bumps along the way. The joy comes from overcoming them, not stopping because of them. And worst of all would be never to try for fear of failure. Imagine what fun you could be missing out on!
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